The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
In late January of this year, Alice B. Toklas appeared in New York City for two days.
She walked in Central Park. She visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to check up on Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, her partner in life. She ate a hot dog — like a pro, stacked with relish — at a truck parked at the foot of the museum’s steps. To passers-by, in her bear-size brown overcoat, white ruff blouse, and a hat festooned with flowers, she was just another New Yorker. No explanations offered. No questions asked. Tourists to the city, eager for New York oddity, got their money’s worth those two days.
Toklas, who died in 1967, was being impersonated — some would say incarnated — by Maira Kalman, the painter, illustrator and author, whose newest book is a colorful reissue of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” by Gertrude Stein, originally published in 1933. Ms. Kalman’s uncanny turn as Alice was the basis of a short movie that she was making with Alex Kalman, her son and a filmmaker, as part of her intention to inhabit her subject, in order to depict her life. Nico Muhly, the composer, plays the Satie piano piece that closes the film, with Ms. Kalman as Alice heel-clicking down Fifth Avenue.
“Only in New York,” Ms. Kalman said recently, over French-pressed coffee in her West Village apartment. “The amount of people who didn’t notice. OK, there’s this woman with a lot of makeup and this gigantic nose” — the makeup artist gave her two, over her own. “OK, there’s another person in New York. Nobody’s normal. And that’s why we live here, right?”
If Toklas and Stein were formidable figures in the cultural landscape of Paris in the golden era of the 1920s, Ms. Kalman, with more than two dozen books to her credit, many for children, and collaborations with the city’s great institutions — including the Met, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a variety of vehicles from opera to dance — has been an estimable figure in her own right on the New York scene, from the 1980s on. With her husband, Tibor Kalman, and his design firm M&Co (the “M” is Maira), Ms. Kalman began her professional life working with that decade’s new corporate headliners, like Benetton, and postmodern glitterati like David Byrne and the Talking Heads. Mr. Kalman died in 1999.
Now Ms. Kalman is taking on the stars of modernism, and the exploding nova of “beauty and intelligence and experimentation,” as she described it, that was Toklas and Stein’s universe, with more than 60 original gouache-on-paper paintings.
The “Autobiography” was the idiosyncratic Stein’s first best seller, a circular conceit written by Gertrude in Alice’s voice, of their lives together. It depicts the apartment on the rue de Fleurus that they shared, where Cézannes and Renoirs papered the walls, and where a salon of artists, writers, composers and society revolved through it — Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse, Pound, Satie, Isadora and Raymond Duncan.
“I think that cohort of artists and writers and the ferment of that time is something she’s connected as a parallel to that of New York,” Edward Koren, the New Yorker cartoonist, and a friend of Ms. Kalman, said. “She looks at Paris as if it were New York, through a New Yorker’s eye. It excites her.” Mr. Koren effected the introductions that allowed Ms. Kalman to visit the famous apartment, as part of her research.
Written in a matter-of-fact manner about the demimonde of Paris the “Autobiography” has the same ear as Andy Warhol’s titillated deadpan in his diaries of the 1980s.
“There were three categories of furs,” wrote Stein as Toklas, quoting Picasso’s companion, Fernande. “Sables, second category ermine and chinchilla, third category martin fox and squirrel.” There was Duchamp. “Everybody loved him.” And there was the woman “who made noises like an animal.” That would be the painter Marie Laurencin.
The book has held its fascination, taking its place in literature: it is ranked number 20 by Modern Library’s editors in the top 100 nonfiction titles of the 20th century.
Ms. Kalman took on the “Autobiography” at the suggestion of her literary agent, Charlotte Sheedy. But Stein has long been on Ms. Kalman’s mind. She makes an appearance in “Smartypants (Pete in School),” a children’s book from 2003. After a classroom recitation, Mr. Divecky, the English teacher, tells his students, “You may think Gertrude Stein is crazy (insane, nuts, delirious, cuckoo), but I love her dearly.”
Ms. Kalman, 70, said she thought that growing up in a household where English was not the first language — she was born in Tel Aviv — laid open, like a book, the idea that language could be anything.
“The eccentricity of language was something that my ear really took to,” she said of Stein’s writing. “And how to break language apart and not follow the rules and not be too afraid of the rules. This kind of poetic license of prose was something that was really important to me, especially for the writing of the children’s books.”
And then there is Alice, defined by her nearly 40-year relationship to Stein, not even the author of her own autobiography.
“Don’t be fooled by Alice being in the background,” Ms. Kalman said. “I don’t think either of them could have been who they were without the other. It’s probably clear for many relationships — you flourish in a way that you wouldn’t have without the other person.”
In one of Ms. Kalman’s paintings, Toklas sits on a garden wall in the country, hills and a river wandering softly behind her. The prism of voices involved shows sharply.
“I like a view but I like to sit with my back to it,” writes Stein, as Alice, in an excerpt below the illustration of that scene.
“I often say, ‘You know what, I’m not so wild about a view either,’” Ms. Kalman said. In the selections she chose, she lent equal weight to momentous moments and otherwise unobserved ones. There are sitting portraits of a pantheon of greats, like Apollinaire, and quickly snapped incidentals like Stein’s sister’s hat blowing off.
“She has such a funny eye,” said Mr. Muhly, who worked with her as an intern at M&Co shortly after Mr. Kalman died, archiving the photographs she takes to paint from. “You’d get a picture and it would be a courtyard in Naples and an old woman and a bucket and knowing Maira, she was probably the most interested in the bucket. So you file it under ‘bucket.’”
He later collaborated with her at the New York Public Library, setting to music Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” — which she illustrated in 2005 — staged in the main reading room. “She strikes such a specific note between whimsy and tragedy, things that are heartbreaking and things that are hysterical, almost always at the same time,” Mr. Muhly said. “As a musician, you have simultaneously a sense of play, something deeply felt and keenly observed, happening at once.”
Ms. Kalman has made the “Autobiography” visually vivid: not inappropriate to a depiction of a brilliant period of art. Man Ray’s frontispiece black-and-white photograph of Toklas and Stein at home in the first edition is now polychromatically brought to life, like the arrival of Dorothy to Oz, in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I’ve added color, and I mean that in the literal — and figurative — sense,” Ms. Kalman said. “You’re moving in a different time. I think it becomes cinematic.” Textual excerpts, used as captions, have a casual, careful Dada-like construct.
Whose book is it, then?
“It’s ‘our’ book,” Ms. Kalman affirms. “I feel that half the book was certainly ‘spoken’ by Alice. I think it’s Gertrude understanding so well Alice’s eccentric voice.”
Although it made the two women money, as it was intended to do, the “Autobiography” was roundly denounced by Toklas’s and Stein’s circle, spat on by people like Matisse who believed they had been spat on in it. Braque wrote of its author, rubbishing her reputation as a sharp-eyed collector, that “she had entirely misunderstood Cubism which she sees simply in terms of personalities,” as though she were a hostess collecting heads, not paintings.
And, as World War II descended on Europe, the couple’s personal life was not all roses either. They declined to leave France. Stein’s “dearest friend during her life,” according to Toklas herself, was Bernard Fay, Stein’s primary translator into French, and later a Vichy government official. Speculation seems certain that he protected them — and their valuable art — during the Occupation. At his suggestion, Stein made translations into English of speeches by Marshal Philippe Pétain. Stein’s American publisher, Random House, refused to print them.
“However near a war is it is always not very near,” she wrote in “Wars I Have Seen.” “Even when it is here.”
“Who knows what really went on there,” Ms. Kalman said. Fay appears with Stein in one of the new illustrations, over the excerpt, “This time they had a great deal to say to each other.”
Ms. Kalman said: “Two gay Jewish women. I don’t know what other people need to do to survive — I can’t judge.”
Judgments withheld, Ms. Kalman does know what it means to survive, in a very personal sense. And her affinity with Toklas and Stein is true to one unassailable fact: the unique achievement of their relationship.
The “Autobiography” ends with a remarkable suite of portraits of the two, and an afterword, by Ms. Kalman. In its bright reprise, one can’t help wonder whose life has passed before us.
“They cannot breathe right without each other,” she writes.
Ms. Kalman and her husband, Tibor, were together for 30 years, before Mr. Kalman’s death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 49. They met when they were 19.
“They realized each other,” she said of Toklas and Stein. “Which is exactly what Tibor and I did. We both knew that we were each other’s most important person in the world. Well, and then he’s gone.”
Alice survived Gertrude by 21 years, writing three books, including “The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book” and her own autobiography, “What Is Remembered.”
As Ms. Kalman concludes at the close of her rendering of Stein’s rendering of Toklas’s rendering of the record of their lives: “Who holds the pen?”